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by : Ray
Published 27 August

The average number of meanings per word in German (and maybe English too)

Based on a study of the evolving number of words in the successive editions of our German-English Literary Dictionary, we can safely venture to say that:


- there are about 2 meanings per word on average for the 10,000 or so most commonly-used words (such as those listed in the initial version of our dictionary);

- there are 1.6 meanings per word when the word-population is expanded to 30,000 or so widely-used words, such as those in the latest version of the dictionary;

- there are about 1.2 meanings per word on average for the other words.

These figures have been gleaned from the evolving contents of this dictionary, which initially contained some 12,000 of the most frequently-used German words, and which has regularly been expanded to incorporate more of the words used in the (German-language) definitions and examples of the previous versions, as follows:

1. Meanings per word:

No. Dictionary version keywords [1] no. of meanings meanings per keyword
1 v12 12,803 25,354 2.0
2 v20 19,935 36,445 1.8
3 v24 23,012 40,523 1.8
4 v32 29,337 48,140 1.6

2. Meanings per word in the increments:

No. Dictionary version incremental keywords increæmental meanings meanings per incremental keyword
1 v20 7,132 11,091 1.6
2 v24 3,077 4,078 1.3
3 v32 6,325 7,617 1.2

3. Conclusion:

Instead of just telling their pupils just that “most German words have several different meanings”, teachers of German everywhere could perhaps now add something like ”there are about 1.6 meanings per word on average, a value which tends towards 1.2 when more and more words are taken into account . . ."


We haven’t been able to do a similar study on the English vocabulary yet, but since English belongs to the Germanic family of languages and shares the basic linguistic characteristics of its Germanic forebear, the Anglo-Saxon language [2] spoken by the Angles and Saxons who settled in Britain in the 5th Century A.D., we tend to think that the above figures might be roughly applicable to English (and to the other members of the Germanic family of languages - Dutch, Swedish, Afrikaans, Norwegian, etc.) too.


[1keywords: excluding dictionary entries for undefined words, expressions, abbreviations, prefixes and suffixes.

[2also known as ”Old English”.